Charters gain nearly half of Idaho’s new students

Idaho’s K-12 public schools took on some 5,000 new students in the past year, according to state enrollment data released mid-February, marking the steepest year-over-year enrollment jump since 2012.

The slight surge in enrollment numbers over the past year fits squarely in the trend of continued growth in Idaho’s education system, which has added more than 50,000 students over the last 15 years.

The data also points to the significance of charter school growth statewide. Charters picked up more than 2,000 students this past year, accounting for more than 40 percent of Idaho’s enrollment growth.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of Bluum, a nonprofit that helps charters open and expand.

Enrollment numbers are an important part of the school funding puzzle. While the lion’s share of school funding is calculated by the State Department of Education based on average daily attendance (the number of enrolled kids who actually show up for school), raw enrollment numbers are used to calculate some specialized school funds and have an impact on that attendance number.

The current enrollment numbers are slightly higher than the state anticipated, the SDE’s Associate Deputy Superintendent of Finance Tim Hill said. But, anecdotally, they make sense.

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“Not surprising,” Hill said. “We’ve heard stories about the number of people moving into the state over the last 12 months and this is in line with, I guess, that.”

Funding 

The state’s mid-February payout for education funding shows that average daily attendance in Idaho was ahead of expectations, producing 15, 439 units, a measure by which the state calculates their financial allotments.

That number was higher than the number of units the Legislature appropriated funds for, Hill said, which means the state will likely have to dip into the Public Education Stabilization Fund — a schools savings account — to fully fund school coffers this year.

Exactly how much the state might have to pull from that fund, Hill said, depends on which other expenses or savings might also impact school funding this year.

Charters

Charter schools accumulated more than 2,000 new students in the past year, a nearly 10 percent increase in their enrollment since mid-February 2018.

Ryan, of Bluum, expects that percent growth at charter schools is probably on the high side this year, in part due to a number of charter schools that recently opened their doors.

Among those are Future Public School and Peace Valley Charter School in the Boise area, Project Impact STEM Academy in Kuna and Gem Prep: Meridian, which enrolled more than 200 students each and picked up more than 1,000 students all together. Those schools alone account for about half of the charter enrollment growth.

Other schools, Ryan said, are adding entire grade levels to their programs or expanding existing facilities.

As Idaho’s population grows, Ryan sees charters as an important part of accommodating an expanding student population.

“Schools need to be opened and built. Charters can do it quickly and effectively, but they’re not the end-all be-all to the expansion, they’re just part of it,” he said. “They’re part of the solution.”

School districts

As of mid-February, the Boise School District was down more students than any other public district in the state. At Feb. 15 reporting levels, Boise’s enrollment had dropped 516 students, about 2 percent of the district’s population.

Those numbers have since improved a little bit, superintendent Don Coberly said. As of last week he estimated the district was 350 or so students below last year’s enrollment levels.

The primary reason for the enrollment decline, Coberly said, is that the Boise School District has seen three years in a row of smaller-than-average kindergarten classes. The secondary-education numbers, he said, don’t show that same kind of drop.

Coberly said that decline could be due to a host of factors, including parents opting for charter school programs that offer full-day kindergarten.

“There are a number of reasons,” Coberly said. “When we look at that, we’ve said: what should we do?”

Starting in the fall, the district plans to offer full-day kindergarten at Adams, Grace Jordan, Jefferson and Trail Wind elementary schools, and pre-K programs at Whittier and Garfield elementary schools in addition to existing programs, district spokesman Ryan Hill said.

Smaller school districts with shrinking enrollment took more of a hit, percentage-wise, the data shows.

The Hagerman Joint District in Gooding County, for example, was down 59 students this year. That’s a 17 percent decline in enrollment. Tiny Pleasant Valley Elementary School District lost five of its 11 students, a 45 percent change.

Idaho’s fastest growing district was the tiny Oneida district, which grew by a whopping 67 percent.  The district gained nearly 1,000 students fueled by its online learning program. (For more on how Oneida is managing the growth, click here.)

Alternatively, the West Ada and Vallivue school districts saw some of the state’s highest enrollment numbers. Administrators say it’s par for the course in their rapidly growing Meridian and Caldwell areas.

The West Ada district increased by some 625 students in a single year and Vallivue gained 340 students.

“This is normal, this is West Ada Normal,” West Ada’s Chief Communications officer Eric Exline said about increasing enrollments.

Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton said the district’s 4 percent growth increase was a tad higher than average. He attributed the bump mainly to the annexation of part of Nampa’s district into Vallivue.

Conversely, Exline said the enrollment increase in West Ada over the past year was slightly below the district’s average.

Both school representatives say they anticipate the numbers will keep inching upward as more people move into their enrollment areas. Charlton said the Vallivue area has so many subdivisions going up that he anticipates “pretty steady growth for at least the next 10 years.”

In the Meridian area, Exline has seen a huge spike in the number of registered housing units he studies for the purpose of mapping attendance areas. In November, he said he saw some 15,500 housing plats. Two weeks ago, that number jumped to 21,000 preliminary plats, making him “very curious to see how our enrollment increase is next year.”

While the data doesn’t always track exactly where those new students are enrolling from, Exline tries to get a sense of that by looking at the analytics on the West Ada School District’s website.

He tracks the geography of the site’s viewers to see where they’re looking from. Of course, the largest number of hits come from Idaho, Exline said.

But, in recent weeks he’s also seen thousands of website views from out of state. The majority came from Utah, he said, with more than 7,000 views. After that, California and Washington racked up the highest numbers, respectively.

“My underlying theory is if you’re looking at West Ada School District from another state it’s because you’re investigating the school district in some way,” he said. “You may be coming here with kids, because why else would someone in Texas be looking at the West Ada School district?”

Data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

DISCLOSURE: Idaho Education News and Bluum are both funded by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

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